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Dr. Alejandro Dopico Awarded More Than $1.7 Million MERIT Award


Alejandro M. Dopico, PhD, MD, professor in the Department of Pharmacology, College of Medicine, at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has been awarded $1,779,532 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The award will support Dr. Dopico’s ongoing study of how ethanol acts on potassium channels of the BK type (Big-conductance potassium channels) in excitable cells, with a particular focus on the impact of alcohol disruption of BK channel function on brain artery function. The five-year grant will run through June 2014.

Ethanol or ethyl alcohol, the volatile, flammable, colorless liquid best known as “alcohol” and found in alcoholic beverages and thermometers, is a powerful psychoactive drug. BK (or Slo) channels constitute a family of highly selective potassium channels found in all cell membranes. Their normal function controls a wide variety of cell processes essential for life, including neuronal firing of train of action potentials, regulation of neurotransmitter release, and control of vascular smooth muscle tone.

Dr. Dopico’s research has documented the contribution of ethanol in targeting of BK channels to several well-known alcohol actions in the body, including inhibition of vasopressin* release and thus, diuresis, and, more recently, cerebrovascular constriction in response to alcohol levels found in circulation during episodic alcohol intake such as during binge drinking. He has been a member of the UTHSC faculty since July 2000 and immersed in this avenue of research for more than 16 years.

The Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award program was initiated by the NIH in fiscal year 1986. Since that time, the MERIT Award has become a symbol of scientific achievement in the research community. The awards are offered to a limited number of investigators who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity during their previous research endeavors and who are likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner.

Investigators cannot apply for MERIT Awards. After new and competing renewal investigator-initiated research project grant (R01) applications are reviewed in the usual manner, NIAAA staff and the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism give further consideration to those R01 applications that meet the criteria for a MERIT Award. The NIAAA director notifies those investigators who are selected. The principal feature of the MERIT Award is the opportunity to obtain up to 10 years of research support in two segments and thereby relieve awardees of the need to prepare frequent renewal applications.

“It is a great honor to have received this award, which resulted from the sustained effort of many scientists, both collaborators and fellow trainees, whom I have had the pleasure to work with along these years. The award recognizes a basic concept of our scientific program, which is unveiling fundamental biophysical processes to understand pathophysiological events triggered by alcohol intake. The focus on cerebrovascular research bolsters a major strength of the UTHSC research community and acquires particular relevance given our location in the so-called stroke belt,” said Dr. Dopico.

Only three other UTHSC researchers hold MERIT Awards. Each of these scientists had his initial five-year award renewed for a second five-year period.

* Vasopressin, a hormone found in most mammals including humans, controls the reabsorption of molecules in the tubules of the kidneys by affecting the tissue’s permeability. It plays a key role in homeostasis (helping the body to maintain a stable, constant condition), and the regulation of water, glucose and salts in the blood. With less vasopressin present in the kidneys, the organs go into diuresis, increased urine production.